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Why is “cruelty-free” a problematic term to use?

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When we use “cruelty-free” in an animal rights/vegan context we focus people on the word “cruel”, a very subjective term that means different things to different people. What most people focus on with the word “cruelty” is the way we treat animals. So, for example, if an animal is treated reasonably well prior to being slaughtered then most nonvegans would say they have had a cruelty-free life. The use of the term perpetuates the idea that as long as we are not cruel to nonhumans then it’s still okay to use them.

In fact, the unfortunately growing “happy exploitation” market is feeding off this term. Recognising that most people do care about animals, the solution being presented to them here is only to reduce suffering–not to stop using animals and animal products, but to ensure that they select the so-called “cruelty-free” or “approved”, “humane-certified”, “free-range” animal products. The consumer is led to believe that ensuring that minimizing, rather than eliminating, the harm caused by the animal products they consume is enough.

One stark example, among many, is the CCF *brand* (see screenshot above), which includes and certifies products that do contain animal ingredients, giving consumers the “choice” to shop “cruelty-free” while continuing to use animals. Unfortunately, even vegans are buying into this “happy exploitation” scam, conflating the exploitation of animals with something that is presented as a “good” *option*. Some vegans now speak of products that are “vegan and cruelty-free”, which seems to imply (given the context and the fact that “cruelty-free” is often used in labelling of products that exploit animals) that there is such a thing as “cruelty-free” products that use animal ingredients. This is wrong; there is no such thing, and such false labelling betrays the interests of the animals for whom vegans are supposed to be standing up. Vegan is the *only* term needed to reinforce that something does not exploit and harm animals.

I understand that there are good intentions at play here but terminology is important when it comes to our social justice movement for animals. This is not about being “kind” or “compassionate” (other very problematic and self-involved terms used by vegans and the “happy” exploitation market) to animals. This is about their *right* not to be used by us. This is about *justice*, *fairness*, and not *using* animals. Vegans don’t want animals treated badly, that’s for sure, but the message we need to send is not about avoiding “cruelty” or mistreatment, but about reiterating that all use is wrong. There is no need to use animals but the problem isn’t what we may consider “cruel”; the problem is that it violates their basic right not to be treated as a resource at all, no matter how “cruel” or not “cruel” any individual considers it to be.

We need to be careful to reject all speciesism and consider if we would use the words we choose in a human social justice context. “Be compassionate, don’t beat women” would be a similarly misguided message; not beating women is not a matter of compassion, but a matter of fundamental rights. “Be cruelty free, don’t beat your slaves” would be misguided for similar reasons—slavery is a rights violation, no matter whether apparently cruelty-free or not because people ought not to be enslaved.

The other issue for vegans to consider is that when we say a product is “cruelty-free”, we may very well be violating the basic rights of other humans by using that product, by promoting it as “cruelty-free”. We cannot stand for justice for animals and ignore humans. All sentient beings are entitled to not be exploited. If your “cruelty-free” product contains chocolate or cashews, to give just two examples, there may be significant human rights violations involved in its production. How very conceited and narrow minded for us to ignore and disregard this. Those who exploit animals (and I include here anyone who eats, wears or uses them in any way) would be right to say that we are being completely hypocritical by ignoring humans when we promote vegan goods as “cruelty-free”. In fact, we are giving them an excuse (not a good one; there are no good ones) to turn away from our ethical stance against the use of animals.

Use the word “vegan”: it’s a great word; we need to own it, support it and protect its definition as the ethical stance against all animal use. It’s not a matter of “compassion”, “kindness”, “cruelty” or “treatment”; it’s a matter of justice and fairness, a matter of fundamental rights. This is a social justice movement. It’s serious. The animals need us to be clear and consistent; they need *justice* and we need to advocate and educate on their behalf. Vegans educating people about veganism.

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  • Tanya Ivancevic

    Beautiful explanation!!!

  • The distinction is confusing to many, myself included. When I first went vegan I was shocked that a product that contained parts of animals could be considered “cruelty-free”. I was also surprised that the “vegan” beauty community (broadly speaking), focuses more on “cruelty-free” products.

    I’m grateful that there is more emphasis today on vegan cosmetics, but, unfortunately because the concept of something being “vegan” refers only to its ingredients, there are many products out there that involve animal exploitation (especially animal testing), that do not contain animal ingredients. Of course, the distinction is really a false one, and it is the unfortunate result of PETA’s emphasis on animal testing.

    I certainly hope that in the future, “vegan” will be the only description necessary.

  • Juliet Ly

    This is so well thought out. The dilemma with the cruelty-free label is also the number of cruelty-free bloggers who are only cruelty-free in the sense of makeup (which is not always vegan). Many of them still shop fast fashion which is completely mind-blowing how the connection isn’t made. Human rights violations definitely need to be addressed.

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